I often say I used to be a journalist. That’s because I’m now a product guy. My transition began in the early 90′s at Ziff Davis, where I spearheaded the reorganization and redesign of a few computer magazines. Then I co-founded a magazine that didn’t make it. After that, I came to FORBES to work on packaging cover stories. That led to guiding a top-to-bottom magazine redesign. I moved on to AOL, where I mixed my journalism with constant product development. My career metamorphosis continued as the CEO of my own digital news startup company, which FORBES first invested in and then purchased.
I tell this story for a reason. Journalists focus on reporting, writing and editing. They cultivate sources and ferret out facts, but keep their distance from the audience. Their work comes alive with photos, video and graphics. The industrial media complex has done it like that for the last 100 years. Along the way, news executives began to shift energy and resources to buying and mining subscriber lists to find bigger audiences to sell to advertisers; or relying on creative subscriber accounting to boost circulation (think hotels and airlines); or putting more ads on Web pages when the digital era arrived (FORBES was in good company with this one). Few thought to change the way a journalist works or recreate the consumer experience as a way to organically build a better business.
Product guys like to think they have a vision to shake things up. They focus on innovative consumer features, user experience (that’s the UX in the Venn diagram above), technology, marketing, sales — and, yes, profitable new business models. The dream: to make something new and different that connects with people — with the hope they love it, buy it and remain loyal to it.
FORBES is bringing a product mentality to its journalism in a unique and disruptive way. We now have a powerful network of 1,000 individual brands — journalists, authors, topic experts, academics and business leaders — who write, program and produce their own pages. With accountability like that, they care as much about their individual product experience and audience as they do their stories and sources. We’ve built a highly scalable way for journalists — and an entire supporting staff of editors and producers — to fan out and connect in a personal way with loyal readers and potential new customers, too.
The network on Forbes.com operates with all the force of Metcalfe’s Law, which states the value of “compatible communicating devices” (or nodes) is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. In our case, each of our 1,000 branded writers is a node in the network, as are the 30 million monthly visitors to Forbes.com and the marketing partners who create content on our platform using our publishing tools. Everyone has the ability and opportunity to communicate with one another. So, for FORBES, the value of N squared is quite significant.
How did we put together a scalable network of writers — each bound together by the power of the FORBES brand — in 22 months? I’ll boil it down to five key product concepts:
1) We provide easy-to-use publishing tools, some that we built and others from third parties.
2) We devloped a brand-building platform for experienced content creators, our audience and marketers.
3) We recognized the truth of Joy’s Law, which states that in a fully networked world most of the smartest people will work for someone else.
4) We made data an addictive audience feedback loop for journalists and writers.
5) We stressed the value of “transacting,” or engaging one-on-one, with news enthusiasts.
The power of social networks is there for everyone to see. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter command the most attention. Many others, including FORBES, continue to develop. Our approach is different. We’re building a curated and filtered network. We carefully select our contributors based on their knowledge and experience. Audience conversation is filtered by each contributor or our staff, making for a far more productive dialogue. Our marketing partners also bring a certain level of commitment, recognizing its about communication and information, not pitching.
With all our product focus, our traditional media standards and values remain at the core of what we do. We’ve built quality into our quantity and transparency into our network. For us, content is content, always labeled and identified. And it all sits at the center of a social media experience — on Forbes.com or wherever our audience decides to share it or place it.
As for me, I’m a product guy with a deep commitment to the profession I fell in love with 40 years ago. An original movie one-sheet, or poster, of All the President’s Men hangs on an office wall across from my desk. It reminds me of why I got into this business — and why I’m so dedicated to building new consumer experiences and a sustainable model for journalism. The era of social media demands it. Most important, so do news consumers.
Coming Soon: A post on a new product feature, the FORBES Follow Bar, and how it personalizes the power of our network.